The challenges of student data privacy and the opportunities ahead – my conversation with the National PTA

Last week, I was invited to participate at an event organized by the National PTA in conjunction with Microsoft to discuss the complex issues surrounding the student data privacy debate. The goal of the event was to equip PTA members with tools to become trusted messengers and champions of student data privacy. I was able to share my experiences and perspective on student data privacy as a parent.

There were many topics discussed that day such as how data are used, data sharing, privacy policies, the Cloud and Big Data. It was an ambitious conversation but one focused on balancing the benefits of collecting student data while ensuring this information is kept private and secure.  I was also able to deliver the message that a class of 5th graders eloquently expressed to me – that we need to be smart about protecting student data because it is important to them.

With that in mind we talked about what Big Data sets in State Longitudinal Databases can do for students and what it cannot do for an individual student. Big Data sets tell important stories and it’s valuable information. We discussed how this data allows us to identify student needs like providing free lunch to kids who need it or how can we address chronic absenteeism, as well as how studies that are generated from Big Data sets allow us to identify issues of discrimination and bias in schools. Recognizing we need the data, how can we properly de-identify it so that it cannot be back mapped to a particular student. Maximum protection of data is important but a big concern from the group is that we provide adequate training to those allowed to work with student data.

Having privacy protections is not enough if we do not have adequate training for school staff on what information can be disclosed to others not only while a child is in school but years after they have left the school. And should we be addressing “data term limits” as to how long student data are retained after a child finishes high school. We discussed the ethical uses of data and what are beneficial uses to help our most vulnerable learners. For example, English language learners might not understand how the data can be used to help them address their different learning needs. How can we assure them that the data will be ethically used and only disclosed to those that are allowed to see the information in order to help them?

Or how does having information on students with learning disabilities help schools address their issues as learners with different needs. How can we take the data and use it to help students but give them the assurance that their disability will not be disclosed to those who do not need the information. The biggest challenge we agreed on, was building trust between schools, parents and service providers that student data are being used responsibly. By building trust we can then focus our conversation on students and providing them with tools to decide what data is collected, how it can be used and ultimately who has access to it.

Focusing our conversation on these issues helped us discuss students and their needs, data and its ethical use, and being responsible custodians of data. At the end of the day, we recognized that having adequate training and materials to support those working with student data is important. But just as important is recognizing we need the data to help students not only at a macro level with longitudinal databases but at a micro level in schools every day for individual students. I was encouraged that our conversation focused on how we can help students and protect their privacy. Our conversation was rich in addressing the issues surrounding student privacy and ensuring that schools and parents understand the importance of being responsible custodians of data. We moved away from what data should and should not be collected and focused on helping students and empowering students to be effective digital citizens.

 

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